The Slow Web: Why fast is important… and why it isn’t

Ever since I was a kid, this has always been one of the most exciting times of the year. Back to school, back to work… new projects, new people, new ideas, new rhythms. Because my world touches the ecommerce world, Black Friday looms large on my mental calendar, as it may also do for you, and with that comes a huge sense of urgency. While I honour the excitement and energy that surrounds this time of year, I want to take a few minutes to slow down and think about why fast is important — and why it isn’t.

A couple of months back, I read this essay by Jack Cheng, and it’s been kicking around in the back alleys of my brain ever since. Before plunging into the bustle of fall, this seems like a good time to think aloud about it.

Cheng writes about a new movement — the Slow Web — which he compares to the Slow Food Movement that launched more than twenty years ago as a protest against the growing global dominance of fast food chains. Just as the Slow Food Movement was a response to the rise of fast food, the Slow Web Movement is a reaction against our accelerating and pervasive use of the web. While Cheng acknowledges that “fast food” and “fast web” are blanket terms that can be interpreted in many ways, the general gist is that both are low in nutrients, high in filler, devoured quickly (and some might also say compulsively and thoughtlessly) in overlarge portions, and yet strangely unsatisfying. The overarching sentiment is that the fast web, like fast food, is bad for us.

Some excerpts from the essay that illustrate these points:

“Fast Web is destination-based. Slow Web is interaction-based. Fast Web is built around homepages, inboxes, and dashboards. Slow Web is built around timely notifications. Fast Web companies often try to rack up pageviews, since pageviews mean ad impressions. Slow Web companies tend to put effectiveness first.”

“Fast Web is about information. Slow Web is about knowledge. Information passes through you; knowledge dissolves into you. And timeliness, rhythm, and moderation are all essential for memory and learning.”

I research and write about speed, yet when I first read this essay, I found myself agreeing with much of what Cheng has to say about Fast versus Slow Web. Since then, I’ve been thinking about why I’m able to reconcile what I do with the Slow Web manifesto.

Here’s how accelerating the user experience ultimately serves the Slow Web Movement:

  • The Slow Web isn’t about slowing down pages and choking us all back to 1993-era response times. It’s about introducing integrity to pages, and elegance and meaningfulness to how we interact with them.
  • It’s about acknowledging the excessive carbs, fats, and unpronounceable additives — in the form of third-party scripts, unnecessary JavaScript, and unoptimized images — that get in the way of this integrity, elegance, and meaningfulness, and if not cutting them out entirely, then serving them on the side, where they don’t taint the flavour of the main dish.
  • It’s about making online experiences not just seamless, but consistently seamless — introducing a predictable cadence from the moment you log on until the moment you shut down.
  • It’s about delivering information quickly, allowing the people who are engaging with that information to internalize it and use it in the most optimal way for their individual needs.
  • It’s about recognizing that you don’t always need tons of pageviews to validate your site’s existence. You need to deliver flawless experiences. Sometimes fewer pageviews and fewer return visits means you’re doing it right, not wrong.

I’ll close with one more inspiring quote from Cheng’s essay:

“Timely not real-time. Rhythm not random. Moderation not excess. Knowledge not information. These are a few of the many characteristics of the Slow Web. It’s not so much a checklist as a feeling, one of being at greater ease with the web-enabled products and services in our lives.”

How you use the web is your business, whether you’re a compulsive Twitter-checker or one of those mythical highly disciplined people who only checks their email twice a day. As somebody who veers toward the compulsive end of the spectrum, I’m not in a place to judge. But regardless of what type of internet user you are, I believe the Slow Web Movement can benefit us all.

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